Review: Lenin’s Embalmers (Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company)

by George Perry

Toronto’s Al Green Theatre serves up a Bolshevik on the rocks, with lots of twists

Lenin's Embalmers

Vladimir Lenin’s body is on display at Red Square in Moscow.  Lenin’s Embalmers, meanwhile, is on display at The Al Green Theatre in Toronto.  We have The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company to thank for bringing this play to Spadina and Bloor.

Lenin’s Embalmers is a story of two men, Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiov.  They were awarded the contract to embalm Vladimir Lenin after his death in 1924.  Governor General’s Award winner Vern Thiessen wrote the play.  It draws on the book of the same name by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson. 

The stage invokes a rustic, old and quaint mood.   Secret passageways become evident and doors open in unexpected places.  Soviet agents appear out of nowhere, like mice living behind baseboards in old cartoons.  There is a matrix, a labyrinth to be navigated, like the old board game Mousetrap.

Much is hidden, and secrets are plentiful.  Later, as events unfold, so too does the stage.  It opens like a fridge, or maybe a book.  Layer upon layer is slowly revealed.  I’m reminded of a song called Glass Onion by John Lennon.

The story is also a warped and perverse web.  The paranoid social situation of Stalinist Russia is probably more complex than the science used to preserve Lenin’s body.   Thiessen’s excellent writing makes the complex, multi-layered story easy to follow.  His comedic elements are hilarious and perfectly placed.  Thankfully he owes nothing to Yakov Smirnoff.

In a perverse twist, Zbarsky and Vorobiov are holding Lenin’s body hostage.  How often has a rotting corpse been used as a hostage?  But then again, maybe it is Stalin holding the embalmers hostage?  They must succeed or else.  It’s life or death on several levels, for Lenin, the embalmers and perhaps Stalin! 

Martin Julien plays Zbarsky and Hardee T. Lineham plays Vorobiov.  The two actors share seven Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations.  Both men are truly convincing, and we forget that we are watching actors.  Seeing these artists perform, the nominations are no surprise

The embalming scene itself is brilliant.  The two embalmers succeeded in 1924, and their work was considered a scientific miracle at the time.  Three quarters of a century later, their miracle is recreated onstage.  The music, lighting and choreography of the embalming scene work together perfectly.   This scene reminded me of a very polished magical performance.  It is fascinating to watch, like something one might see on television or in a posh Las Vegas act. 

The cast and crew perform magic, particularly with this scene.  Zbarsky and Vorobiov perform acts that would amaze Ziegfried and Roy.  However, neither white tigers nor Russian bears appear in the death-defying sequence.

Harry Nelken is adorable as Lenin.  He reminded me of Burl Ives in a Christmas special for some reason.  As a corpse, he steps off of the gurney from time to time to crack a joke or two.  Lenin “kills them out there” and he does it from the great beyond.  Now that is leadership!

The Al Green Theatre is part of the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.  The same building houses the gym that my friend Mike works out in.  This is a great location, and the 20-minute intermission would have allowed us to scoot back to his house for a quick beverage if he were not on painkillers.

Janine Theriault is also fantastic as Nadia, Nadia and Nadia.  I’ll leave it to others to decide if one woman playing three characters, all with the same name, all treacherous, is insulting to half the population or not.

One thing we didn’t like about the production was not knowing about the talk backs that occur after every play.  The talks are a great idea.  We might have preferred it before the performance, or maybe more informally during the intermission in the lobby.

I recently listened to a radio interview with the doctor who tried to save John Lennon on that horrible night 30 years ago.  He held John’s heart in his hands.  Lenin’s brain was removed from his corpse before the embalmers saw it.  These two twentieth century revolutionaries , missing vital organs, are with us as much as ever, decades later.  Its our actions, deeds, thoughts and ideas that make us human, not our bodies, not our vessels.  Great works of art like Lenin’s Embalmers refresh our memories from time to time.

– Lenin’s Embalmers is playing until November 21, 2010 at the Al Green Theatre (750 Spadina)
– Performances Tue-Thu and Sat 8 pm, mats Wed and Sat 2 pm (see website for other days and times)
– Ticket prices range from $40.50 to $64.50
– Tickets can be purchased by phone (416) 366-7723 or online.

Photo of Matin Julien and Hardee T. Lineham

4 thoughts on “Review: Lenin’s Embalmers (Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company)”

  1. Whom do you believe? Both Ouzounian and Nestruck panned this play. ????????? How come such differences in critique?

  2. Hi Frank,

    The differences really just come down to a difference in preference. What one person loves, another may hate and vice versa. In fact, that’s one of the driving tenets of Mooney on Theatre. Make sure that you give enough information about a show that someone can decide if they think they’d like it or not, even if the reviewer loved or hated it.

    But yeah, that’s all it comes down to, preference. It’s not uncommon for theatre reviews to disagree.


  3. I think that it also depends on when you saw the play. Things can keep changing and adapting and in fact a later performance might actually have addressed issues that were there on opening.

    So, as always, one should see and decide for themselves.


  4. Philip, it’s a really good point. I’ve often thought that it’s a shame reviews generally happen on opening night. I mean, I understand logistically, since it’s used to get the word out about a piece, that’s when it has to be.

    Unfortunately, sometimes it means that a production hasn’t gotten it’s legs yet, and the press that, now that there is the web, sticks around forever may be reviewing a show that wasn’t really what the piece ended up being.

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